The Evolution of Leadership

Monday, July 26, 2021 - 07:15
AIM Blog The Evolution of Leadership

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

Shakespeare’s quote from Twelfth Night speaks to the station of individuals and its relation to leadership in the political sphere is easy to make: monarchs are born into their rule; warlords and dictators seize power by force and maintain it through intimidation; and democratically appointed leaders are given their positions by the voice of the people.

It is commonly believed that this is a positive progression towards democracy. Concepts like divine right in Europe and the Mandate of Heaven in ancient and imperial China justified the rule of monarchs and emperors, and both are now considered relics of a different era. Tyranny certainly still exists in the world but is regularly derided as immoral. And in our society, this belief in democracy is completely bipartisan.

These three categories of leaders assign differently in the business world: people can be “born” into management by being gifted positions from nepotistic friends and family, while others must fight tooth and nail to prove their value and earn a leadership role. There are also people who are promoted into management roles against their own desires, often because they have demonstrated strong technical capability in their function, but this does not prove their potential as people managers. This issue of being promoted beyond one’s competency is known as the Peter Principle.

Even setting aside the gross ethical issue of nepotism, selecting someone because of their personal connections is obviously not the best method for sourcing high-level talent. A meritocratic system of promotion, one that fully realises the goal of equality with equitable opportunities, will by its nature fill leadership positions with the best available person for the role. Now you might say that our current system is more-or-less meritocratic, in theory if not in practice, but it can’t fully be unless everyone is united in belief of fair equality.

Take the obvious example of women in leadership. Historically and to this day, women have faced discrimination that results in less opportunities to move into leadership roles. But as times have begun to change and more women are in power, they have demonstrated valuable leadership traits that were previously overlooked.

Quality leadership in modern business is less about charisma and more about empathy. It’s not about telling people what to do, how to do it, when to do it by, and cracking the whip when these aren’t being achieved; it’s more often about enabling employees to find better, more effective ways of working, ways that suit the individual’s strengths, rather than sticking to business as usual.

But the important thing this tells us about leadership is that it changes and evolves. In the past, someone could work the same job for 30 years and never have to learn new skills, because the tools and techniques used didn’t change, they had already found the best way to work. Today though, there is some new technology coming out every week, and with the incessant drive for optimisation, there will likely never again be a singular moment where we know the best way of working.

Therefore, it comes down to leaders to guide businesses toward, if not the best way of working, then at least better ways. They need to be agile and strong communicators, confident but self-aware enough to recognise their own weaknesses, committed to supporting their staff rather than just managing them, and resilient to this constant change.

And that’s just what leaders need to be today. It’s impossible to say what they will need to be tomorrow.

AIM is celebrating our 80-year history of empowering Australians with the most relevant skills to achieve their career goals and seize the future. So that you can celebrate with us, we are offering 20% off all our Short Courses from the Faculty of Leadership and Strategy. To learn more about AIM’s history or take advantage of this offer, please visit